Branson’s coconut airways – but jet is on a flight to nowhere, say critics
[150,000 coconuts for 6% of the fuel London to Amsterdam ……..]
A Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747 running on jet fuel and the oil from 150,000 coconuts
parted company with the runway at Heathrow and slipped into a hazy blue sky.
Forty minutes later, the first commercial aircraft to be powered partly by biofuel
touched down at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam. However, Branson admitted that
the biofuel mix that partially powered the flight would not be used commercially.
Three of the 747’s four tanks were filled with normal jet fuel while its fourth
carried a mixture that was 80% jet fuel and 20% coconut and babassu palm oil.
Branson has pledged to invest profits from his transport empire in biofuel production,
but serious doubts have already been raised. Critics argue that biofuels damage
developing countries by driving up food prices and harm the environment by encouraging
The Heathrow trial, in partnership with Boeing, engine maker General Electric,
and Imperium Renewables, attempted to assuage those concerns by using biofuel
made from coconut oil harvested from existing plantations in the Philippines and
oil from babassu palms, which grow wild in Brazil.
Land given to coconut plantations would have to be vastly expanded to satisfy
the demands of aviation, resulting in deforestation, while the babassu palms used
in yesterday’s experiment are not available in sufficient numbers.
The airline industry, he added, would probably have to turn to algae in its search
for viable biofuels. Algae are grown in ponds rather than on land, so they do
not require deforestation or take space that could be used for food crops.
Environmental groups have warned that processing algae may produce more carbon
dioxide than is saved by using it as an alternative fuel. There are also concerns
that algae will compete for fresh-water sources as the ponds evaporate and have
to be topped up.
Tim Jones, a policy officer at the World Development Movement, said the minimal
amount of biofuel used in the trial underlined the difficulty of reducing emissions
within the aviation industry. “It only reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 20%
and there is no technology available that allows us to fly without making emissions.”
Kenneth Richter, Friends of the Earth aviation campaigner, said: “Biofuels are
a major distraction in the fight against climate change. There is mounting evidence
that the carbon savings from biofuels are negligible. If Virgin was really serious
about reducing the aviation industry’s impact on the environment it would support
calls for aircraft emissions to be included in the climate change bill.”
Concerns about biofuels have spread to mainstream transport companies including
National Express, which abandoned a biofuel trial for its buses amid fears that
it was causing more harm than good to the environment.
The government acknowledged those concerns last week when it ordered a review
of the environmental and economic impact of biofuels.
The transport secretary, Ruth Kelly, said the government might not support an
EU proposal to increase the proportion of biofuel in petrol and diesel to 10%
by 2020 if the review raises serious doubts.